He read early and loved books. Since living in a school boarding school for a while, he started reading “with a demanding habit” every day. But Peter Suhrkamp had no idea that he would become a publisher.
He was an elementary school teacher, dramaturge, editor and, since January 1, 1933, editor of the “Neue Rundschau” at S.-Fischer-Verlag. Hitler came four weeks later and the trials of his life began. Samuel Fischer’s heirs left Germany in 1936 and edited the unwanted authors from Thomas Mann to Jakob Wassermann first in Vienna and then in Stockholm exile. Suhrkamp stayed and directed the part of the publishing house that remained in Berlin through the difficult times alone until the Nazis threw him into a concentration camp in 1944 because of treason.
He was terminally ill when he was surprisingly released in February 1945, was the first German publisher to receive a publishing license after the end of the war, but was only supposed to act as a consultant after the return of Gottfried Bermann Fischer. Hermann Hesse advised to found his own publishing house, and Peter Suhrkamp did not hesitate. He let the Fischer authors choose where they wanted to publish in the future. Out of 48, 33 chose him. Brecht only needed one sentence for his vote: “Dear Suhrkamp, of course I would like to be in the publisher you are running under all circumstances.” On July 1, 1950, the new company was entered in the commercial register.
The goal was outlined from the start: Suhrkamp should be given a “current face” and not be an arbitrary company, not a profile-less general store that appeals to the widest possible audience. You started with TS Eliot and Max Frisch. Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Brecht and Hesse, Laxness and Shaw followed. Suhrkamp wanted to collect and educate. He founded the Suhrkamp library, commissioned Eva Rechel-Mertens to translate Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” into German and enforced the French narrator against all odds. He brought Beckett, Günter Eich, Wolfdietrich Schnurre, the young Martin Walser, and he planned, always “unconcerned about the daily exchange of opinions,” as Max Frisch praised, unaffected by political pressure, a work edition by Bertolt Brecht, who was heralded and boycotted in the West . In the course of a few years the publishing house became an institution, the most important literary voice in the Federal Republic.
Few people today know that Peter Suhrkamp wrote himself, mainly essays and reviews. Now, 70 years after its founding, the publishing house is documenting its journalistic work with the volume »About Behavior in Danger«, the most thorough and extensive collection of texts by its founder to date, which has continually dealt with the world of books and the problems of his time.
In the foreground is a theater review from 1919, at the end a letter to Heinrich von Brentano, the then Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic, written in May 1957, who compared Brecht’s late poems with the poetry of the Nazi saint Horst Wessel. In between book recommendations, considerations, a review of the burning of books from 1933, a passionate plea for Proust, essays on reading and the use of a library, a greeting to Hermann Hesse’s 70th birthday, five years later, in 1952, to his friend Suhrkamp a boy Mann recommended that he then became the right hand of the boss and also took his place after his death in 1959: Siegfried Unseld.
As if born for his task, he quickly became the defining publisher. He brought with him everything that one needs to be able to deal with, to soothe, to encourage, to encourage, highly sensitive, sometimes megalomaniac authors who mostly only have their own eyes on them.
The library Suhrkamp now illustrates how much empathy, intuition, patience, skill, and determination was involved with a volume that bundles Unseld’s experience from sixty years as a publisher. He was only ten days in office when he went to Berlin to negotiate with Brecht’s widow Helene Weigel. He recorded the result of the interview in the detailed report and then made this practice a habit.
When he died in 2002, he had taken about 1,500 such trips, sometimes quick flying visits, sometimes longer activities, all of which were carefully described and only accessible to employees of the company. Raimund Fellinger, the chief editor who died in April, has now added a selection of the minutes to an impressive interior view of the publishing work.
The title sober: “Travel reports”. The texts that record conversations, agreements and impressions are sometimes as plain as the term under which they were collected. Sometimes it’s just about the mundane things of the profession, about advance payments, fees, appointments, paper formats or print runs. But even there you can see the handwriting of a man who, as a boss, was a friend, stimulator, planner, finance minister, partner, encourager and also pastor.
In a letter to the sociologist and social theorist Niklas Luhmann, Unseld explained: “I may be – and hopefully – against the expectations in that I am an old-fashioned person in that I value personal contact a lot.” And so he kept going Leipzig, New York, Warsaw, Rome, Japan or Lake Constance, spoke to booksellers and met his authors. Most of them were pleasant, productive missions, but sometimes meetings that were more shocking. Thomas Bernhard reserved “the most beautiful room in the hotel” for him in the summer of 1980. Unseld: »I sensed some mischief. And then it came. ”Bernhard told him frankly that it had been going on long enough now that it was better to split up, he didn’t have to write, and he could earn his 2,000 marks a month differently. Max Frisch, who did not feel sufficiently honored, caused even the worst irritation with petty and unsubstantiated allegations when he accused the publisher of shabby and ignorant behavior in May 1971.
What is of general interest to these reports is Unseld’s skill in not merely providing meager renditions of his conversations. He also shows, even if only sketchily, the writer he was dealing with. When he met Wolfgang Köppen in July 1969, he was even able to forego details of the encounter. There was no conversation, just a two-hour Koeppen monologue, a confession in the hotel room, the description of the private, catastrophic needs and another promise (which was also broken again) that his new manuscript would soon be finished. “He was completely burned down,” Unseld wrote. »I handed him DM 500, -. Nobody knows what will happen next. ”
Again and again the book allows a look behind the scenes of everyday business. Samuel Beckett, who saw literature as “punitive work”, can be seen in his dark, poor Parisian quarter, a skinny man with a bright face who still bravely sat at the desk, even if he did little. There is the Austrian Friederike Mayröcker, who could not receive her publisher at home because there was no space in her room, which was chaotically dominated by books and papers. Then another walk through the old Prague of Bohumil Hrabal, which was killed by a lintel and was now honored in a moving funeral service. In Warsaw, Unseld met Maria Szymborska, the shy, reserved poet who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize, in her tiny apartment. Stanislaw Lem offered him his conviction of the impending end of the world, Unseld traveled to the funeral of the lovable prose writer Hermann Lenz, spoke to Enzensberger, Handke, Plenzdorf, Thomas Brasch, Amos Oz and played chess in 1995 with Anatoli Karpow. The world champion won after 28 moves and animated his opponent to a detailed report that, for once, was not about literary matters.
Peter Suhrkamp: About behavior in danger, ed. v. Raimund Fellinger u. Jonathan Landgrebe, Suhrkamp, 420 pages, born, € 30. Siegfried Unseld: Travel reports, ed. v. Raimund Fellinger, 378 pages, born, € 26.